clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The dysfunction among House Republicans is getting worse

A mutiny last week among the GOP’s far-right faction spells trouble for Speaker Kevin McCarthy, and everyone else.

Kevin McCarthy, surrounded by reporters, stands beneath a balcony featuring ornate marble columns, a decorative red and gold curtain, and a marble sculpture of a woman.
US House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) speaks with media this week after a hard-right faction of fellow GOP lawmakers blocked a bill in retaliation for McCarthy’s debt ceiling deal with the Biden administration.
Getty Images
Ellen Ioanes covers breaking and general assignment news as the weekend reporter at Vox. She previously worked at Business Insider covering the military and global conflicts.

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s compromises with far-right members of his own Republican party to gain leadership of the House in January may be coming back to haunt him.

Last week, 11 members of the far-right GOP contingent known as the House Freedom Caucus expressed their displeasure with McCarthy, voting with Democrats to block a procedural vote on two Republican bills to limit regulations on gas stoves, as well as halting business on the House floor for days in what has been described widely as a revolt.

Seemingly innocuous legislation restricting regulations on gas stoves would, in theory, be popular among Republicans. Scientific findings suggesting that such appliances can cause health problems became a major touchstone in the right’s culture war earlier this year, with Republicans falsely claiming that the government would ban gas stoves.

Those bills, however, became collateral damage, at least for now, in the ongoing fight between McCarthy and the far-right wing of the Republican party — a fight that has threatened to boil over since McCarthy and the White House managed to avoid a cataclysmic national default with their debt limit deal late last month. With House Republicans in disarray, leadership announced it would meet Monday to attempt to move forward with planned votes.

Ultimately, the drama isn’t just about a vote to advance legislation on gas stoves; it’s a referendum on McCarthy’s leadership, and whether he can keep his conference on his side to maintain his position and pass critical legislation as the end of the government’s fiscal year draws nearer.

McCarthy’s power is contingent on a number of compromises he made with Freedom Caucus members in January, including a concession to the motion to vacate. That would allow any one member to offer a motion to “vacate the chair,” initiating a new election for speaker at any time, according to Vox’s Andrew Prokop. Now that possibility hovers in the background as the House’s ultraconservatives continue to withhold their support from McCarthy in their quest to move their party further to the right.

Freedom Caucus members expressed their fury over a debt limit deal

Republicans had hoped for greater spending cuts as part of a deal to suspend the debt limit; in exchange for suspending it until 2025, Republicans wanted increased work requirements for people to access Medicaid and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and sought caps on non-defense spending through 2033. The compromise legislation did change work requirements for some SNAP recipients and will end the three-year pause on student loan repayments by the end of the summer.

With just a 10-seat majority in the House and a Democratic majority in the Senate, however, McCarthy and Republican leadership have had to concede to their Democratic colleagues to get anything done, spiting the far-right Republicans, particularly Rep. Chip Roy (R-TX).

But even the legislators trying to disrupt McCarthy and Congress can’t seem to agree on what it is they actually want to move the voting process forward this week, according to McCarthy and other leaders. Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) said on Thursday, however, that his faction had had “encouraging” talks with House Majority Leader Steve Scalise (R-LA).

The battle puts McCarthy in a particularly difficult position. Any concession to the far-right risks alienating more moderate Republicans, some of whom are already very publicly frustrated with the mutiny in their ranks.

“This is, in my opinion, political incontinence on our part. We are wetting ourselves […] and can’t do anything about it,” Rep. Steve Womack (R-AR) told the Washington Post. “This is insane. This is not the way a governing majority is expected to behave, and, frankly, I think there’ll be a political cost to it.”

McCarthy’s relationship with the House Freedom Caucus has always been tense

McCarthy’s mandate to lead has never been strong; you might remember January’s dramatic 15 rounds of voting for the speakership, caused in part by opposition from his party’s ultraconservative caucus.

McCarthy had, through developing a relationship with far-right Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, sought to court that extreme wing of his party in order to avoid the pitfalls of the previous Republican speakers, John Boehner and Paul Ryan. But his relationship alone with Taylor Greene, the former QAnon follower elected to Congress in 2020, could not win his GOP opponents — McCarthy had to agree to several measures, including restoring a rule that allows any single member of the House to trigger a recall vote on the speaker.

Not every part of the agreement between McCarthy and the Freedom Caucus holdouts has been made public, but as Vox’s Prokop wrote in January, those agreements fall into three major categories: government spending, including on appropriations and the debt ceiling; the snap-election rule change; and committee assignments for Freedom Caucus holdouts, including on the influential Rules Committee.

Any legislation to adjust the debt ceiling was going to be deeply contentious. The GOP has long used the nation’s debt, and efforts to raise the debt limit, as a cudgel to attempt to pass aggressive spending cuts for social programs. During President Obama’s first term, House Republicans tried to enact dollar-for-dollar spending cuts for debt ceiling increases; that failed, but the administration eventually agreed to deep spending cuts in exchange for three debt limit increases.

Roy had worked alongside Republican leadership to draft far more extreme debt ceiling legislation than what ultimately passed last month. Roy called the final deal a “betrayal” of conservatives and the agreement the Freedom Caucus members made with McCarthy to advance his speakership.

As Vox’s Li Zhou wrote before the debt limit vote, any compromise with Democrats and perceived betrayal of Roy and the Freedom Caucus agreements over the debt ceiling deal were likely to spell trouble for McCarthy:

Looming over the vote is also an unspoken threat against McCarthy’s leadership, which, according to House rules, can be challenged if just one member wants to do so. A majority of the House, however, would have to vote to remove him as Speaker, and it’s unclear whether there are enough votes from either party to achieve that.

This week’s obstruction by Roy and his compatriots falls conspicuously short of calling for McCarthy to vacate the chair but reminds McCarthy of the sway they hold not just over his leadership, but the work of Congress, too.

McCarthy risks alienating moderate Republicans, too

McCarthy has outwardly expressed confidence that the different factions of his party will come to an agreement and get the Republican agenda back on track. “We’ve been through this before; you know we’re in a small majority,” McCarthy said Wednesday. “I don’t take this job because it’s easy. We’ll work through this, and we’ll even be stronger.”

For now, it seems as though McCarthy’s power is even further blunted by the far-right contingent in his own party — and it’s not clear how he’ll bring them into the fold without alienating more moderate factions of his own party, much less the Democrats he’ll need to pass future legislation.

Indeed, some more moderate Republicans are already frustrated with the party’s move to the right, as Politico reported Wednesday. A plan to put forward a bill codifying restrictions on federal spending on abortion — commonly called the Hyde Amendment — reportedly angered South Carolina Rep. Nancy Mace, who has argued that the party needs to move toward the center on some issues to avoid alienating voters.

Whether McCarthy can manage the opposing factions of his party — and indeed, if he can keep his tenuous grip on the speakership — is unclear. That will have significant consequences in the long term if the pattern of obstruction continues, particularly when it comes to funding the government and avoiding a shutdown in the fall.

“I’ve got serious concerns as we go into the appropriations process about how antics like this taking down a rule can impact the ability for us to do our basic job of funding the government,” Womack told the New York Times Wednesday. “It was already going to be a pretty heavy lift, but it is a lift that is going to be made heavier if this is what we are going to be facing.”

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.